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Dreary search for phone network

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BEAUTIFUL TROUBLED AREA—Part of Tchalo

Discipline Mtonga suggested that the only way to get the message to the chief was by delivering it through word of mouth.

“It is hard to get the chief on his mobile phone,” the boat sailor, who operates from Mlowe Harbour in Rumphi east, said.

In January this year, our efforts to reach Traditional Authority (T/A) Chapinduka of the district on his mobile phone were in vain.

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We were interested to find out how the Affordable Inputs Programme (AIP) was being implemented in his area, Tchalo, a peninsula which is home to over 6,000 people.

Days later, the chief called.

“I got a message that you were looking for me but I cannot speak long because I am on the lake. We can meet within the week,” he said.

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We settled for February 10.

An expedition from Mlowe Harbour to the peninsula, tucked between the breath-taking Lake Malawi and Chiweta Escarpments, takes about two-and-a-half hours for hired boats which charge around K130,000 and over three hours for public passenger boats.

Inhabitants of Tchalo are mostly maize and tobacco farmers and fishermen.

“We send messages by word of mouth to Tchalo and other areas such as Mzuwu, Old Salawe and Mtowo because mobile phone network is a huge challenge there,” a sailor, who picked us to Tchalo, Loti Chisiza, said.

He had taken a letter to Tchalo Football Team from Mlowe Select which was requesting a friendly match.

“So this is a game of time management. They agree to talk at a particular time, say 7 in the evening. So the person at Tchalo will search for mobile phone network, for example on the lake, at Tchalo Clinic or on the hills and make a call,” Chisiza said.

As we went past Old Salawe—a harbour for small engine boats— some youth were spotted talking on their mobile phones or texting on social media on the shores of the lake.

Mtonga, who was co-sailing the boat that we had boarded, revealed the shoreline becomes overwhelmed after dusk. In Old Salawe, this is the only place where mobile phone network is available.

“Many people, especially the youth, come here to connect with their friends on social media platforms,” Mtonga said.

Portia Nyirenda, a pharmacist at Tchalo Health Centre, where we stopped by, also complained about struggles of accessing mobile phone network.

“We have mobile phone network around the hospital but it is not reliable. The moment we move out of the premises, the network is gone.

“So we struggle when we have a referral or a serious case that we want to communicate with our colleagues at Gordon Memorial Hospital at Livingstonia,” Nyirenda said.

While at the hospital, we tried to call T/A Chapinduka but number was out of reach.

We luckily found him at Tchalo Docking Area where he was waiting in the company of his senior councillors, sufficiently masked to keep the coronavirus at bay.

“I hope your journey to this place has given you a picture of what we experience,” said the smiling chief as he led us up to his office.

We sat under a tree outside the small office as it was too hot inside and listened intently as the local ruler narrated a litany of challenges his people face due to erratic mobile phone network.

“Some people go uphill while others opt for the lake in search of network. We are like forgotten citizens. In fact, I even doubted you would really come,” Chapinduka, real name Shemu Kondowe, said.

He does not understand why his area, which could be transformed into a vibrant tourist attraction site, fails to win the hearts of government officials who keep preaching about diversifying Malawi’s economic fortunes.

In fact, for at least 1,500 AIP beneficiaries, Mlowe was their nearest buying point.

They had to spend about K6,000 for transport and food, an arrangement which somehow significantly crushed the core aim of the programme—that beneficiaries should spend less on farm inputs.

“We are deprived of our social and economic rights. Our fishermen cannot easily communicate with their customers. As a result, they sell their catch at very low prices in surrounding communities. We also fail to follow events because of poor radio reception,” Chapinduka said.

A few yards from the chief’s office stands Tchalo Primary School whose Head teacher Dickson Robert Nyirenda bemoaned radio reception challenges, saying they were preventing people in the area from accessing vital information.

For instance, radio learning programmes introduced as a remedy while schools remained closed due to Covid-19, were ineffectual to learners in the area because of the radio reception hitches.

“These drawbacks mean learning through radio or online is practically impossible. It is unrealistic to imagine that learners can rush to the lake or uphill to access the lessons,” Nyirenda said.

A 2019 survey on access and use of information and communications technologies (ICT) by households and individuals in Malawi noted that accessing and using ICT products and services and ownership at both household and individual level is currently at 36.5 percent and 43.2, percent which is lower than the average Southern African regional levels.

Airtel Malawi, which boasts of 83.5 percent network coverage, admits the challenge at Tchalo but blames the scenario on the terrain of the area.

“The nearest sites are also not able to cover these areas due to the steep hilly or mountainous terrain along the lakeshore which blocks coverage access,” Airtel Malawi spokesperson, Norah Chavula Chirwa, said.

On the other hand, TNM, whose network covers approximately 78 percent of the population, said plans are underway to explore means of extending coverage to Old Salawe and eventually reach the uncovered areas.

“Government, through the Malawi Digital Broadcasting Network Limited under LMC project (Universal Access Fund) constructed a tower at Nkhombwa as one way of getting the signal closer to Tchalo.

“For TNM to get a signal to Tchalo, it has to pass through Mlowe, Nkhombwa, Zunga and Old Salawe. TNM currently has network coverage at Mlowe and Nkhombwa. However, the coverage range is not long enough because of the hilly escarpments along Lake Malawi,” TNM Brand Communications Manager Limbani Nsapato said.

Apparently, the government initiated the Last Mile Rural Connectivity Project aimed at providing access to telecommunication services in places where a large population is unable to access network due to topography, among others.

The project is, however, facing financial hitches but Information Minister, Gospel Kazako, said the budget allocation towards the project should not cause worry as government will use other available resources to fund it.

“Government does not only use money which is in the budget; we also have other partners that will be coming in and we also have other resources lying somewhere. So, the budget might be low but that should not cause concern,” Kazako said.

The project intends to erect 136 towers out of which 28 have been erected but only 15 are working.

But Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (Macra) commends mobile phone operators in the country for continuing to invest in network expansion.

Macra Spokesperson Clara Mwafulirwa said currently 4G network population coverage is at 86 percent.

“Use of the services continues to be hampered by a number of factors including affordability of devices, cost of accessing the services, network availability and availability of power to charge the devices among others.

“As such, Malawi has lower mobile phone penetration of around 48 percent compared to an average of 75 percent in the Sadc region,” Mwafulirwa said.

Failure to access such digital services, according to Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation Executive Director Michael Kaiyatsa, is a violation of human rights.

Kaiyatsa says every Malawian, regardless of whether they are, is supposed to access communication services without any problem.

“Government is compelled to establish the Universal Service Fund which will among other things ensure that hard-to-reach areas have adequate infrastructure to enable easy access to communication services. Why has the government not rolled out the fund which is in the law?” he queries.

But Macra insists operationalisation of the fund is shaping up and that a committee to manage it is currently in force.

Back to Tchalo, locals keep crying for services which the government is supposed to provide without any excuse

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